When Is A Practice Unscriptural? (No. 2)
Preachers of the church of Christ have always taught the possibility of apostasy. They have written voluminously on the subject. They have preached much on it, and have debated with Baptist preachers who deny it. But today, as the current issues are being discussed, one would conclude from the writings and preaching of some brethren that no such possibility existed, - that the ship of Zion has long since passed all the troubled waters, and with so many great and good men at the helm, is assured a safe course into the haven beyond. Thus when anyone dares to question present trends among us, he is immediately branded as a hobby rider or a crank.
This is but another example of a failure to correctly apply Biblical principles for which they have long contended, that we dealt with in a recent issue of this paper. Specifically, we pointed out that many of the preachers who in the past have contended for the all sufficiency of the local church to do its work, are today contending for the right of churches to build and maintain benevolent institutions that are separate and apart from the church to do its benevolent work. In so doing, they thus deny that the church is sufficient to do the benevolent work that God has laid upon it.
In this article we will endeavor to point out how the "sponsoring church" concept of evangelism nullifies another Bible principle for which brethren have always stood, namely, the autonomy of the local church.
What is meant by the autonomy of the local church? Before attempting to give a definition of church autonomy, let us get a view of the church of which we read in the New Testament. The church was built by Jesus Christ. Matt. 16:18. Jesus Christ, and the fact of his divinity is the foundation on which the church is built, I Cor. 3:11, Eph. 2:20. Jesus is the head of the church. Eph. 1:22. The church is subject to Christ. Eph. 5:24. The church, as the word is used in the above passages, is composed of all believers in Christ who have been baptized into the one body. I Cor. 12:13. In this sense we sometimes speak of it as the church universal.
But there is another sense in which the church is spoken of. We read of the church which was at Antioch. Acts 13:. We read of the church of God at Corinth. I Cor. 1:2. We also read of the church of the Thessalonians. I Thess. 1:1. From these passages it is seen that the word "church" is sometimes used in the sense of a local congregation and comprises all the baptized believers who meet together in one place for worship. Thus the church of God at Corinth was composed of all the Christians in that city.
The church universal has no earthly government. There are no earthly headquarters such as Catholicism has at Rome. There is no earthly head such as archbishop or pope. As such it is ruled from heaven by Jesus Christ who has all authority in heaven and on earth, Matt. 28:18, and who is head over all things to the church. Eph. 1.22. It is thus seen that it would be impossible to scripturally activate the universal church in any program of work. Since elders have the oversight of the local church, who would have the oversight of a universal church program? The church universal has no elders. Who, then, would make the decisions as to what work was going to be done, and where? Who would decide how much money was to be spent and how it was to be spent? Certainly no local eldership could undertake such a work without becoming universal bishops, - the very title that was assumed by the first pope. In later years it was an attempt to activate the universal church that led to the formation of the first missionary society among churches of Christ.
The government of the local church is vested in the elders. God's order is, "Elders in every church." Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5. Every congregation should appoint elders as soon as they find men among their number who are qualified. Men should seek to qualify for this office, for Paul said, "If a man desires the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work." I Tim. 3:1.
The duties of elders are outlined in the following scriptures. Teaching. I Tim. 3:2. Taking care of the church of God. I Tim. 3:5. Exhorting, and convicting gainsayers. Titus 1:9. Feeding the church of the Lord. Acts 20:28. Overseeing the church. I Peter 5:2. Ruling the church. I Tim. 5:17.
The rule of the elders is not arbitrary. They have no legislative power. They rule under Christ the chief Shepherd. I Peter 5:4. They watch on behalf of souls and must give account for the way they rule. Heb. 13:17. They are warned against lording it over the flock. I Pet. 9:3. Their ruling prerogative consists of maintaining and exercising discipline within the church. Their oversight consists of overseeing the work, worship, and the teaching program of the church just as a father rules his household. Congregational funds come under their oversight, Acts 11:29, 30, and it is the responsibility of the elders to make the final decision as to how such funds are to be spent.
The oversight of the elders extends no further than the local congregation. They are to tend the flock of God which is among them. I Peter 5:1, 2. They can only oversee the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made them bishops. Acts 20:28.
From the above observations we would then define church autonomy is that which makes each congregation entirely self-governing. Each church is a complete unit, and under its own eldership it can and must make all the decisions relative to its work and worship that must be made. No other eldership has any right to say what discipline shall be administered to an erring member. No other congregation can decide what work or what amount of work a church may undertake. No other eldership can scripturally decide where and how a church is going to spend its funds. We submit that in this latter respect the autonomy of the local church is violated in
What is a sponsoring church? Here is the picture. A large influential church "assumes" a work that is far beyond her financial ability - a work that requires soliciting funds from other congregations. The fact that the work required the resources of several churches, implies that it is equally the work of those several congregations,-that they all stand equally related to it. But after the sponsoring church has "assumed" the oversight of this work, they tell us that it has become their own exclusive work, and that they are in complete control. Thus they make all the decisions regarding this work, and all the contributing churches can do about it is send the necessary money.
To show that we are not misrepresenting nor overdrawing the matter, let us look at the Herald of Truth set-up, since it is one of the clearest examples of a sponsoring church arrangement. The Herald of Truth is sponsored by the Highland Street church at Abilene, Texas. However it is not financed by Highland church, alone, but by contributions from over a thousand other churches. And whose work do they say it is? In the Tant-Harper debate, page 88, Brother E. R. Harper went on record as saying that it was Highland's own work by virtue of the fact that they paid all the bills.
In a statement put out by the elders of Highland church concerning the operation of the Herald of Truth, and jointly signed by them, we find in one paragraph the following: "The Herald of Truth program is a work of the church at Fifth and Highland, Abilene, Texas. The elders of this congregation direct and oversee every phase of this work from preparation of these sermons to mailing copies of these sermons. The Highland elders have never delegated any authority to any person, but as a unit have directed this work."
In another paragraph from the same statement we read: "Questions and criticisms are welcomed, but since this is a work of the Highland congregation, TO MAINTAIN ITS AUTONOMY OR INDEPENDENCE THE ELDERS MUST MAKE THE DECISIONS." (Emphasis mine. -.M.W.R.B.)
Now, someone asks, What could possibly be wrong with churches joining together in a cooperative effort to preach the gospel?
Before attempting to answer that question, let us try to pin-point the real issue by showing what is not wrong.
1. It is not wrong to conduct a radio program, When the Lord gave the great commission he did not specify any one method of teaching or any method of teaching. Man is left free to use the method that is best under the circumstances. This is what we recognize as the realm of expediency. A radio program is one of the many methods that can be used in preaching the gospel. It is a powerful means of reaching people who may not be reached by other methods.
2. Nor is the Herald of Truth wrong because it is a nation-wide broadcast. Sometimes I have heard brethren say, Well, it does look like a pretty big project alright. So, far as this writer is concerned, the "bigness" of the thing is not the real issue. The great commission is world-wide in scope. In carrying out the great commission the church can preach the gospel across the street, across the nation, or across the sea. If a church has the financial ability (and financial ability determines responsibility) it can preach the gospel over as many radio stations as its finances allow it to. Charges that have been made that those who oppose the Herald of Truth do so because they believe that the church can only preach the gospel in her own community are completey false, and only have the effect of muddying the water.
3. Neither is there any question but that churches may cooperate in presenting a radio program that exceeds the financial ability of any one church. This can be done and in some places is being done on an alternating basis. Under such in arrangement one congregation takes the program for a period of time, say a month. During that month all arrangements for the program are made by this one church. All bills are paid by this church out of its own finances. The same procedure is followed by another congregation the next month. In this way there is no centralization of authority and no combining of the funds of many congregagations under one eldership.
What is wrong with the Herald of Truth arrangement? Briefly it can he summed up in one word, - centralization. All the work and the decisions related to it, all the funds relative to the Herald of Truth of over a thousand congregations are centralized at Highland church at Abilene, Texas. Such an arrangement raises the following questions.
1. How did the Herald of Truth come to be exclusively Highland's work? Highland church does not finance the program. It takes the contributions of over a thousand churches to finance it. In the Tant-Harper debate, Brother Harper said that if you can figure out who is paying for the program you will know whose program it is. We agree. But on that basis would not the Herald of Truth be just as much the work of those thousand other churches as it is Highland's? They are helping to pay for it. Again we ask, What then makes it exclusively Highland's work?
2. But suppose we grant, as Brother Guy N. Woods contended in the Cogdill-Woods debate, (pages 194, 237) that the Herald of Truth is the work of all the churches with Highland church having the oversight, it does not help the case one bit, for it only raises other questions. Can there be such a thing as brotherhood elders? If the elders of one church can oversee the radio work of a thousand other churches,-if they can make all their decisions for them as to what radio sermons are going to be preached and how their money for radio work is going to be spent, can they not oversee other phases of the work of the contributing churches? Can they not just as logically oversee an evangelistic program for them? If not, why not? If they can, where is the stopping place in their oversight short of Rome?
3. If it be said that the Herald of Truth became Highland's exclusive work by reason of the fact that they "assumed" it, we ask, Does the assuming of something necessarily make it the exclusive property of the one that did the assuming? When John the Faster and later Boniface the Third "assumed" the title of "Universal Bishop" did that make them such? And supposing that some ambitious eldership "assumed" the responsibility of overseeing all the evangelistic work for all of the churches, would that give them the right to do so? If not, on what basis then can it be claimed that Highland church in Abilene, Texas, is scripturally right in assuming that the Herald of Truth is her own exclusive work?
4. But, and here is what we believe to be the focal point of the whole issue, taking Highland's own statement regarding the Herald of Truth, - "But since this is a work of Highland congregation, to maintain its autonomy or independence the elders must make the decisions,"-we are here faced with these questions: If it would be a surrender of Highland's autonomy to delegate any authority to any of the contributing churches, what shall be said of those contributing churches who delegated all the authority to Highland church insofar as the Herald of Truth is concerned ? Were they not all equally related to the Herald of Truth before Highland church "assumed" the oversight thereof ? Was there not then a loss of autonomy on their part? If it would be a loss of Highland's autonomy for them to say to the contributing churches, You help us make the decisions, was it not a surrender of the autonomy of the contributing churches when they said to Highland, You make all the decisions? Did not the contributing churches surrender the decision as to how their money was going to be handled when they turned it over to Highland church knowing that the elders there would make all the decisions relative to the Herald of Truth? If churches lose their autonomy by contributing to a missionary society (one central agency) to do their evangelistic work for them, do not churches surrender their autonomy insofar as radio work is concerned when they turn their funds over to Highland church (another central agency) to do their radio work?
Let the reader understand that we hold no personal animosity toward the elders of Highland church who are overseeing the Herald of Truth. We have no doubt that their intentions are good. Nor do we believe that the Herald of Truth arrangement is any more wrong than other such sponsored projects. We have mentioned it because we believe that it is typical of all sponsored arrangements where the funds of several congregations are turned over to a central church which has assumed the oversight of, and which makes all decisions as to the work that is being promoted. This is a clear case of elders assuming more power than God ordained for them to have. The sponsoring church concept of evangelism results in the surrender of autonomy of churches and is thus unscriptural.
But a few more questions are in order.
What gives any one church the right to become a sponsoring church, overseeing a part of the work, and handling a part of the funds of a number of other churches? Is it because of its size, prestige, or location? Is it because the elders of the sponsoring church are more capable than the elders of the contributina churches? Are not all congregations equal before God? Does anyone believe that the church with two hundred members and a weekly contribution of five hundred dollars is more highly favored by God than a church with twenty members and a weekly contribution of fifty dollars? Granting that each member of each church has given as they have been prospered, does not the total contribution of each church represent their financial ability? Does any one believe that God expects the large church to do a work in excess of its five hundred dollars a week, any more than he expects the small church to do a work in excess of its fifty dollars a week?
If a church can sponsor some phase of the work of a thousand other churches, where is the stopping place? Could they not on the same basis sponsor all the work of those thousand churches? Could they not sponsor all the work for all the churches?
If it is right for one church to promote a work in excess of its financial ability, and then solicit help from other churches in carrying out this work, then, on the basis that all congregations are equal, could not every church do the same thing? What a picture this presents! Every church from A to Z decides to promote a work that they cannot pay for, and therefore they must have help from all the other churches. Church A writes letters to the twenty-five other churches asking for help, but in the meantime church A receives letters from those twenty-five churches asking for help in carrying out the projects they have sponsored. Church A decides to answer these appeals, but since she doesn't have any money, before she can make a contribution to Church B, she must receive a contribution from Church C. The same would be true of all the other churches. If any church has the money to meet the appeals from other churches, we submit that they had no right to appeal for help from other churches. So far as the New Testament record is concerned, no church ever contributed to another church unless the receiving church was in need. 2 Cor. 8:14. Rom. 15:6. Acts 11:28-30.
But the final and important question is, Where in the Bible is the sponsoring church authorized? Where is the command? Where is the example? Where is the necessary inference that churches pooled any part of their resources under a sponsoring church? The gospel made its most phenomenal growth during the first thirty years of the Christian era. Thirty years after Pentecost Paul was able to say that the gospel had been preached in all creation under heaven. Col. 1:23. Gospel preachers with a love for lost souls went to the distant parts of the earth carrving the message of the cross. Sometimes a number of churches cooperated in supporting one man. 2 Cor. 11:7-9. But so far as the New Testament record is concerned, the support was sent directly to the preacher and not through a sponsoring church. 2 Cor. 11:8, 9. Phil. 4:15-18. May God help our brethren to renounce all departures from the New Testament order and to follow the divine pattern in every undertaking.
Truth Magazine III:7, pp. 13-17